After having read Peter Singer’s ‘The life you can save’ and Tracy Kidder’s ‘Mountains Beyond Mountains’ I have been trying to understand why it is that we are so disconnected from the people who need us the most.
There are better examples in the books, but I liken it to suffering by a member of your family. If your brother or sister were dying most people would give close to everything they had to keep them alive.
Perhaps an even better example is someone in our own community. A friend of mine gave birth to a child with cystic fibrosis. Soon after my family donated a sum towards cystic fibrosis research. (And you can too, here).
Firstly, why do we feel this desire to help those close to us? And secondly why is it that we don’t have the same feelings towards people in much greater need?
This feeling of disconnection was exemplified for me when I visited the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. There was an artwork which consisted of letters from people in the third world.
Are we that disconnected that we can turn the words of suffering from others into a museum piece, just by putting it behind glass?
I’ve been asking people this question for some time and have been getting some interesting responses.
Some have said that it comes down to the moment. Family and friends are in your face, and tend to pull at the heart strings. Giving to someone you don’t know tends to be more of a rational decision – and when people think about it, they tend to give less. Singer makes a similar argument in his book.
Others have pointed to a need to be saturated in a person’s situation to really get it. This is easy with people you know because you already see part of yourself in them. But harder with someone you don’t know.
Perhaps the answer really does just come down to empathy. We just don’t get how difficult it is to not have access to reliable light, banking services, or a road or decently priced quality healthcare.
Because if we did, maybe we would do more about it.